Reply All and the Internet’s Humanity

I was in fourth grade sitting at my family’s computer. I turned my head toward my mom in the living room and shouted, “What does muff mean?” Someone I was playing Pictionary with online was using the handle Muff Diver Mike. I wasn’t allowed back on the computer for a week.

In between the time of Usenet mailing lists and the Facebook and Twitter era, the Internet was a veritable Wild West. It was the time of flash animations of frogs in blenders, of HTML pages littered with gifs, and it was a virtual playground for nerdy kids like myself. I spent a lot of my time in niche communities dedicated to web design, digital art, coding, and video games, and I made friends in these communities. We’d talk about life, school, girls, and complain about our parents. I spent so much time online that I always say that I grew up on the Internet, and I have been making meaningful relationships online since I was eleven years old. I’m still Facebook friends with some people I met online twelve years ago – about half of my life. One person even invited me to his wedding.

Non-academic writing about the Internet that appears in newspapers or magazines (online and in print) tends to miss these kinds of relationships that many people build online. For contemporary authors, the Internet is largely a cultural force to be studied. To study how movements are created and shaped online this is fine, but it leaves out a large part of why people use the Internet.

Reply All is, at its heart, a collection of stories about how the Internet shapes and is shaped by the people that use it. Reply All is a podcast produced by Gimlet Media, which also produces the Start Up podcast, and is hosted by PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman. The hosts tell stories that turn views into humanity – both the vile and the inspirational – in ways that can only happen on the Internet. Such earnest examinations into the culture of the Internet are nothing short of refreshing.

The first episode of Reply All (although the duo produced a similar show under On The Media), entitled “An App Sends A Stranger To Say ‘I Love You’,” tells the story of an app created by an artist that does exactly that – allows a user to send a message in a bottle via a stranger who is close in proximity to the recipient. The episode is largely a love story and weaves in between how it was used by an ex-lover, and the technology and history of the app itself.

Reply All’s earnest tone allows the hosts to tell complex, dark, and heavy stories about esoteric and weird pockets of the Internet. The closest equivalent I had experienced previously were articles circulated around the Internet about discussion boards for incredibly niche sexual fetishes, but the tone was always mocking (a forum for individuals sexually attracted to quicksand still remains one of my favorite I-can’t-believe-this-exists areas of the Internet, for what it’s worth). Reply All attempts to understand these unusual communities and relationships built online. There are moments of absolute hilarity, but these moments are always distinctly humble, and come during interviews where a subject is willing to laugh at themselves and how surreal it can be.

Here are some recommended episodes to get you started:

  • Episode 1 – “An App Sends A Stranger To Say ‘I Love You.’”
  • Episode 2 – “The Secret, Gruesome Internet For Doctors.” The hosts dive into an app called Figure One, essentially an Instagram-like photo-sharing platform for doctors used to share gory photos of patients and corpses. The platform is used as a way of looking at the divide between the everyday realities of medical professionals that are unknown to patients.
  • Episode 5 – “Jennicam.” An in-depth look at Jenny, arguably the Internet’s first celebrity, who live-streamed her dorm room 24/7.
  • Episode 15 – “I’ve Killed People and I Have Hostages.” A particularly vicious form of trolling called “SWAT”-ing: faking phone calls to local police, usually of a hostage scenario, to get the target’s house ambushed by a SWAT team.